North Charleston has plans for arts center in old asbestos plant 

Mill Town

The abandoned Garco Mill is currently boarded up

Jonatan Boncek

The abandoned Garco Mill is currently boarded up

The past several years have seen North Charleston's arts scene boom, with the East Montague-Park Circle area becoming a favorite for pop-up visual art events, avant-garde art shows, and — just down the road at the mixed-use development Mixson — arts-and-crafts markets. The city is home to a theater company, South of Broadway, as well as a city-sponsored dinner theater and the annual North Charleston Arts Festival, which attracts more than 30,000 visitors a year.

But there's one thing that the city still lacks: arts venues. Besides South of Broadway's theater space and the Meeting Place gallery, both of which are on East Montague Avenue, artists and performers really don't have many traditional spaces to choose from. There's Sterett Hall at the Navy Yard which was recently used for the Crimson Screen Horror Film Fest, but it's a 960-seat auditorium, which most local groups would be hard-pressed to fill. And of course, there's the North Charleston Coliseum, which is home to both the North Charleston Performing Arts Center — a beautiful, but even bigger performance space — and the North Charleston City Gallery, which is equally beautiful but hardly a typical art gallery.

In a few years, though, city officials hope this all will change. In 2013, North Charleston purchased the Garco Mill, a two-story brick building on the back side of the Olde Village, with the intention of turning it into an arts center.

The mill's in pretty poor shape, having sat empty for many years, but it's a beautiful building. Its red-brick walls are filled with lofty, arched windows — nearly all of which are broken now — and it's got the early 20th-century-industrial aesthetic that's long been popular with big-city bohemians and, more recently, with smaller cities looking to reclaim their history and in so doing, up their cultural cool.

"In terms of artist assistance, that's our Mecca," says Ann Simmons, an arts coordinator with the city's Cultural Arts Department. She and the rest of the department have put in lots of time coming up with a vision for the space, which is aimed at not only individual artists and performers, but arts organizations as well. "In the vision, it's art studios, but it's also incubator space for start-up arts businesses — shared conference rooms, a copy machine, meeting spaces, that sort of thing." Preliminary plans also call for a small black box theater with around 100 seats, traditional gallery space, and community gathering space, maybe in the form of a coffee shop.

Simmons' department, which is seven full-time and five part-time staff strong, has long been committed to nurturing the arts, but up to now it has been mostly focused on working with individual artists and providing youth and community outreach. The department does arts enrichment in 13 North Charleston elementary schools during the school year and, as of this summer, in 20 community centers as well.

They also have an Artist-in-Residence (AIR) program, which selects one working artist to do arts outreach in the city's 36 schools and present a solo exhibition at the North Charleston City Gallery. The residency lasts a fiscal year, and AIRs are paid for their time — $20 an hour for up to 300 hours.

And these programs appear to work quite well. Lots of artists who've worked in various capacities with the Cultural Arts Department say they've found it to be a committed, supportive, and open-minded partner. Cookie Washington, a fiber artist who's curated North Charleston's African-American Fiber Art Exhibition for the past nine years, has nothing but praise for the city. "[They're] very open to working with the individual artist, and open to new ideas," she says. "We walked into their office several years ago and said, 'You know what you need? An African-American quilt exhibition.' And they were like, 'OK.' They're very supportive of African-American artists."

Kristy Bishop, a fiber artist who was selected as North Charleston's artist-in-residence for 2012-13, also felt that the city was committed to helping her develop her career. "I had a great experience being the artist-in-residence," Bishop says. "The most important experience that I took away from the residency was learning to teach kids from K-5 through grade 12 ... It opened the door for me to continue teaching."

While the Cultural Arts Department's focus on outreach and artist development won't change, now the city is looking to further expand its impact, particularly in Park Circle. "Something we're looking to do is bring more arts businesses and organizations out this way, because the support is here and the infrastructure is here, and obviously this is becoming that kind of area," Simmons says. "The synergy that's developing here with the creative businesses — it's the hip, trendy place to be."

The Garco Mill will require some serious environmental remediation. In its working days, it was home to the General Asbestos and Rubber Co., — so it will be a few years before it fulfills its new purpose as an arts center. The total cost for renovations have been estimated at between $10 and $15 million, and the city is still deciding how to fund the project.

In the meantime, Simmons says, she and her co-workers as well as other city officials will continue to fine-tune the vision for the building: "The executive department asked us, 'Pie in the sky, if you could have anything you wanted, what would it be?' We said, 'We want this and this and this' — we did our research. But I think we'll be taking some trips to other Southeastern art centers and surveying local artists to find out what they're looking for."

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